From the bottle, still captive, the scent: Jeux de Peau, the latest Serge Lutens - and as always, eagerly awaited new creation - appears to be a very elegant, boozy, cereal-y concoction with a hint of melted butter. On subsequent tries, it strikes you how extraordinary it is that the smell wafting from an invisible pecan pie suspended in mid-air could feel so ethereal and realistic at the same time. The secret of the nose-cum-chef appears to be an immortelle-and-iris accord which bespeaks of the joys of feasting but also of the sensuality of pale skin, as pale as white flour, of death, and of immortality. The interview offered by the house alludes to the transiency of life thanks to evanescent yet precise aromas conjuring up the realm of childhood memories.
For starters, Jeux de Peau (Skin Games) continues to weave the gourmand-oriental thematic which is so peculiar to the author and certainly winning to someone like me as I recall that when the house opened, my very first two purchases were Arabie and Douce Amère isolating them as the two most distinctive and "different" perfumes next to the more classical yet beautiful florals like Sa Majesté la Rose (see review) or Datura Noir. An influence on the Lutensian universe which has been little explored, if at all, is its possibility to have been what it is thanks to the inspiration sourced from the iconic modern gourmand-oriental born in the 90s, Angel by Thierry Mugler. Lutens loves to parallel cedar wood with pastry for instance, an unusual synesthetic association which seems perfectly right-sounding to him. His perfumes, in a way, are like grocery stores of olfactive memorabilia, souk baskets of treats.
I am of the school that thinks that this gourmand-oriental concept was more than hinted at as early as in the 1920s with Shalimar by Guerlain. If we go back further in time, heliotrope perfumes with their cherry-pie note would be the timid groundbreakers of our olfactory nerve pathways that made it possible in the long run to admit foody perfumes on skin.
What Serge Lutens has done is turn the gourmand-oriental genre into an introspective genre, going further than Angel in that childhood memory serves not only nostalgia but the contemplation of the present and interrogations about the future. Nowhere have you seen gustatory notes capable of evoking such metaphysical or oniric disquiet. Food, we learn with Lutens, can be deep...
Skin Deep by Cecilia Paredes, 2008
With Jeux de Peau the gourmand-oriental genre is refined to a point where food references lose their material substance and prosaic and mundane connotations. They transform themselves into abstract notes capable of denoting style and contemplation.
While the new perfume is advertized as showcasing the scent of fresh French baguette, and while it does contain it, it is in reality much less obvious than that, both on the olfactory and symbolic levels. But as the author points out about one of his autobiographical sources of inspiration for the scent, "The fact that it was barely perceptible made it even more obvious." One could say that the smell of baguette here plays the role of olfactive trigger for the memory of Serge Lutens who goes back to the days of his childhood when he would go get baguette at dusk, greeted by the smile of the boulangère, who is now, he adds, long dead. Her skeleton, her dentures, her mask of death are evoked. As always with Lutens, there can be a reading at a perfumery level and at a literary level, the latter which usually thrives on word-plays and symbolic allusions. As you smell the perfume, the name of the fragrance becomes clearer and also more layered, offering different meanings and levels of interpretation.
The first image that comes to mind to try to anchor the opening olfactory sensations is that of French toast on a Sunday brunch with its nuances of caramelized sugar, powdery-sweet omelette (sprinkled with confectioner's sugar) and soft doughy bread. The "blandness" of the mie de pain or soft interior of the bread acts like a note of doughy, praline-y iris, minus the floral nuance. It brings foremost an unusual tonality to the perfume which feels much more unexpected and quirky in its personality than literally gourmand per se. Here the gourmand-oriental genre is not so much reinstated thanks to an illlustrative and interesting composition as being the natural embodiment or a pretext for unusual pairings and creative writing. It is food as support for states of conciousness and pushing of boundaries.
On the skin, the nuances of maple syrup are unmistakable; these fade into buttery heaven sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon; just before you got lassoed into this overly indulgent accord, you had the time to think that Jeux de Peau felt a bit like a lighter Sables by Annick Goutal, a perfume replete with patchouli absolute posing as burnished-under-the-sun everlasting flower. As the composition continues to evolve, a roasted and candied pecan note becomes more fullblown perceptible conjuring up the comforting vision of a rich Southern meal spread much more than that of a classic, elongated French baguette fresh out of the oven. Unless of course the idea here was to take one nearly imperceptible nuance of pecan found in one particular baguette; baguettes in French are often described as having nutty nuances and they can also smell of steam and charred materias. Taking poetical license, the perfumers would have decided to magnify this true aroma like a macroscopic, hyperrealistic painting of a baguette crust detail, depicting a brown, burnt asperity which smelled of pecan and then for good measure, black licorice.
The fragrance is intent on exploring it seems a palette of pyrazine notes, and to a lesser extent, butyric ones. Hence a comingling of coffee, burnt toast, caramel, crème brûlée, licorice toffee, the latter recalling a popular French brand called La pie qui chante. The baguette here hates to feel alone without some gourmand accomplices.
Jeux de Peau conjures up other compositions at this point. I think of the licorice of Lolita Lempicka Le premier parfum, itself a descendant of Angel, but also more recently and especially of the everlasting and iris notes in Like This by Etat Libre d'Orange (see review) keeping in mind that if the palette of notes which is explored here is reminiscent of these other fragrances, the Lutensian universe of outrageously elegant gourmand, gustatory perfumes betraying a taste for intense aesthetic contemplation, like a French, Parisian, Café-society variation on the Turkish notion of Keif, is what it is really all about. Seeing how the Oriental-gourmand framework is forever present in Lutensian perfumes, you cannot escape the feeling that the ways of drinking coffee while looking into space in the East and West come to meet in Jeux de Peau.
The Meanings of Skin
On a more symbolic level, Jeux de Peau for me is also a name which contains a skeptical program about the truth one may find in a bottle of perfume. Lutens has expressed more than once how in the end it is the wearer who decides subjectively if a perfume is worth wearing, loving, appreciating. "Skin Games" means in this respect that each skin will give its own reading of the perfume. The photographer Lutens cannot not be aware of the play of light, jeux de lumière, transforming reality thanks to infinite nuances. Jeux de peau is by analogy, an allusion to the versatility of scent like light is to objects. The name is calling our attention and displacing the locus of the act of decicing the value or nature of a perfume taking it away from the imperium of the nose to the suppleness of the skin. And skin like women, it is also like for them well accepted, is ever changing. It is not the nose which smells and thinks anymore but the skin which absorbs and recreates the scent given a range of notes to play with. Therefore a fragrance cannot be completely chaotic nor a free exercise in improvisation but skin, it is underlined, plays a role in recreating any perfume and this one in particular. As a particularly fastidious perfume-wearer, one could imitate the practices of Chinese concubines and ingest the right foods which wouldl help skin smell the scent we want it to exude. One could conceive that eating more of spices or more of citruses or garlic will bring a different tonality to a given perfume. It is therefore meaningful to note this displacement of the evaluating organ from nose to skin as an invitation to forget judgment and let our skins play with perfume.
As the perfume mellows down it takes on a subtle cast, which emphasizes further the central, active role of skin in this composition, giving yet another meaning to the fragrance. Jeux de Peau is also a skin scent meant to stay close to the body, disappearing in it, liking nothing more than to whisper. The drydown of the perfume is particularly beautiful with its poetical, ethereal gourmand-iris-y quality which is the most refined and interesting of all the gourmand-iris fragrances I have smelled thinking of Iris Ganache by Guerlain and Van Cleef and Arpels Bois d'iris. The woods palette is very much that of Santal de Mysore with its milky, spicy sandalwood.
The scent of baguette manages sometimes to emerge in all its subtle range, making you think of the different shades of white in the snow, only sweeter and nuttier. The smell is closer to the aroma of a walnut bread by Poilâne than to a white-flour baguette.
Minimal Iris and immortelle nuances are used to suggest the scent of baguette where they are usually used to convey the smell of skin in perfumes. A salty note of ambergris further tricks the mind into thinking of skin. Hence on a third level, skin and baguette get confused. Skin as white as a white baguette, paleness of complexion being one of the recurring themes in the Lutensian universe (see Serge Noire.)
In the interview offered by Serge Lutens (we'll publish it in English later on), the boulangère evokes the specter of death, the smile of death, calling our attention this time to bread as the corpus Christi, but also bread as the skin of women or of that of the boulangère who is now long dead says Lutens. Her smile has turned into a deathly rictus. Childhood is contemplated in the later stages of life. Bread is, anew, infused with metaphysical meaning by Lutens going well beyond the showcasing of its taste-scent.